Florida football: 5 week-too-early thoughts on rival FSU
Florida will look to post its first 10-win regular season since 2015 next weekend when it takes on in-state rival Florida State in The Swamp (7:30 ET, SEC Network).
The game might not command national attention, due to another tough season for Florida State, but it doesn’t lack compelling storylines.
Here is an early look at 5 fascinating storylines ahead of the Sunshine State Showdown.
Florida State’s Super Bowl
The Seminoles will enter the game bowl eligible at 6-5, but without head coach Willie Taggart, who was fired after Florida State was humiliated on its homefield by Miami earlier this month.
Longtime and beloved assistant Odell Haggins is coaching the team in Taggart’s stead, his 2nd stint as FSU’s interim head coach in 3 seasons. Interestingly, the Seminoles are 4-0 under Haggins as the interim coach and there are some around the program who think Haggins should be given the job permanently if FSU upsets the No. 11 Gators.
While that might seem unlikely, LSU handed Ed Orgeron the job after a successful interim stint in 2016 and obviously, that has turned out quite well. Like Orgeron at LSU, Haggins understands and embraces Florida State’s culture and values its winning history. There are certainly worse ideas, like, for example, hiring a coach with a sub .500 career record as a head coach to run one of college football’s most successful programs.
The Seminoles will head to a bowl game in December, with projections ranging from the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit on Dec. 26 to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on New Year’s Eve, but make no mistake: the Florida game will be FSU’s version of the Super Bowl.
This series is full of stories of under fire head coaches — or already fired head coaches — winning or playing close games in this series, from interim head coach Gary Darnell’s near upset of the No. 6 Seminoles in 1989 to Ron Zook’s famous win on the day FSU dedicated the field at Doak Campbell Stadium to Bobby Bowden in 2004 to the already fired Will Muschamp’s near upset of then No. 1 FSU in 2014.
There’s no question that a Seminoles team that actually still has significantly more blue-chip talent than Florida would love to win the game for Haggins — potentially earning him the full-time job in the process.
Take back The Swamp
The Gators haven’t defeated FSU in Gainesville since senior day for Tim Tebow.
I’ll type that once more to let it sink in.
The Gators haven’t beat FSU in Gainesville since senior day for Tim Tebow.
That means the Gators enter the FSU game 0-for-the-decade (or 0-4) against FSU in The Swamp.
Making matters worse, the Seminoles have won every game in Gainesville comfortably, with the average margin of victory in the past 4 contests of 21 points.
The Gators can close the season unbeaten at home for the first time since 2016, and only the 3rd time this decade, with a victory. More important, they can stop the disturbing trend of being soundly beaten on their home field by their in-state rival.
Big Bowl implications for the Gators
Florida’s path to a 2nd consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl appearance remains viable, but the Gators will almost certainly be relegated to the Citrus, Outback or Gator Bowl with a loss to FSU. A Florida victory, on the other hand, all but assures Florida a New Year’s 6 invitation, likely to the Cotton or Orange Bowl, thanks to B1G (and maybe even SEC) attrition.
Florida-Florida State is always a big game from a recruiting standpoint, and with Manny Diaz’s Miami rebuild in its infancy, UCF falling back to Earth under Josh Heupel and FSU wandering the college football wilderness at present, another New Year’s 6 bowl appearance for Dan Mullen and Florida would be the latest sign that Florida is the clear leader and ascendant program of the Sunshine State’s Big 4 (yes, Big 4).
A host of bad matchups for FSU
From a statistical standpoint and a “strength vs. weakness” standpoint, this is a nightmare matchup for Haggins and Florida State.
Offensively, the Seminoles’ strength is offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ passing attack. The Seminoles rank 37th nationally in pass efficiency and average a solid 12.4 yards per completion.
Unfortunately, they don’t protect the quarterback well (110th in sack percentage allowed), which means the strength of their offense has frequently been negated this season when they face outstanding pass rushes.
Florida is strong on the backend in pass defense (22nd nationally in pass efficiency defense) and excellent at getting to the quarterback (13th in the country in sack percentage) and creating defensive havoc (10th nationally).
These numbers suggest Florida is well-equipped to negate what FSU does best on offense.
As for when the Gators have the ball, the Seminoles rank 48th in pass efficiency defense, 59th in defensive sack percentage and 57th in defensive havoc, all respectable numbers. But the Noles have surrendered 7.1 yards per pass attempt on the season and will face a Florida offense that ranks 16th in pass efficiency and 21st in yards per pass attempt.
The only passing offenses the Seminoles faced this season that prolific? Clemson, which found success in the air to the tune of 232 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 31-point rout, and Louisville, which couldn’t get enough stops defensively to win at FSU but torched the Seminoles’ secondary for 288 yards on 10.2 yards per attempt on the afternoon.
These matchups don’t bode well for the Seminoles on paper, but rivalry games are funny things.
An emotional senior day for the Gators
Florida’s turnaround from 4-win program with a toxic culture to program on the precipice of back-to-back 10-win seasons and New Year’s 6 bowl appearances would not have been possible without buy-in from Florida’s veteran leadership.
The Gators aren’t a deep team, but they do have a deep reservoir of talented veterans who have bought into Mullen’s vision and invested in leaving the program in a far better place than when they arrived.
We saw the latest evidence of Florida’s buy-in and culture change last week, when the Florida seniors vanquished their Missouri demons, and you can bet that registering a home victory over rival FSU is next on their list.
Lamical Perine, one of the most complete Gators on and off the field in recent history, will be among the Gators playing their final game in The Swamp, and Perine made no qualms about hiding how emotional he will be this week on Twitter.
1 last time in the Swamp …
— La’Mical Perine (@LP_deucedeuce) November 17, 2019
It’s hard to imagine Florida’s senior leadership group of Perine, linebacker David Reese, defensive end Jon Greenard, and wide receivers Van Jefferson, Joshua Hammond, Tyrie Cleveland and Freddie Swain leaving The Swamp losers. They’ll be amped up to finish the job come Nov. 30.